The Growing Importance of Larger Churches in England

The results of the 2005 English Church Census were published in September 2006 in a book called Pulling Out of the Nosedive. The detailed county results are given in Religious Trends No. 6 2006/2007. Both were published and distributed by Christian Research in September 2006.

Figure 1 shows the distribution of churches of different sizes in England in 2005, and how that has changed since 1989.

Figure 1: Size of English churches, 1989-2005

The average size of churches seems to be getting smaller. This is clear from the increasing proportions of churches which are very small and the reducing proportions of churches which have more than one hundred people. In 1989, the average size of a Sunday congregation was 123 people; by 1998, this had become ninety-eight and had dropped to eighty-four in 2005. These figures include Roman Catholic churches which, on average, are four times larger than others, and if these are excluded, the average size for Protestant churches becomes, respectively, eighty-seven, seventy-three, and sixty-seven in 2005.

Churches and Churchgoers
The proportion of churchgoers varies by the size of the church. With two-thirds, seventy percent, of churches having fewer than one hundred people in their congregation in 2005, it is interesting to see that cumulatively these accounted for only a quarter, twenty-five percent, of churchgoers. Figure 2 illustrates the disparity between number of churches and number of churchgoers.


Figure 2: Percentages of churches and churchgoers, 2005

The Largest Churches
The largest churches, some five percent of all the 37,500 churches in England, are collectively responsible for almost one-third of churchgoers. These churches are therefore a significant element of English Christianity.

There are many Catholic churches whose Sunday congregations are over one thousand people, but among other denominations, the chief ones are:

10,000  Kingsway International Christian Centre, Hackney 
5,500  Kensington Temple, West London
5,000  Hillsong in Central London 
4,000  Ruach Ministries, Brixton 
2,500  House of Praise, Woolwich  
2,500  St. Thomas Crookes, Sheffield 
2,490  Holy Trinity, Brompton, West London 
2,200  Jesus House for All Nations, Brent 
2,000  All Souls in Central London 
1,680  Holy Trinity, Cheltenham 
1,450  Basingstoke Community Church 
1,400  Community Church, Southampton 
1,400  St. Andrew’s, Chorleywood 
1,400  Renewal Christian Centre, Solihull 
1,200  Kingdom Faith Church, Horsham 
1,100  Woodlands Church, Bristol  
1,100  Trinity Baptist Church, West Norwood 
1,080  St. Ebbe’s, Oxford 
1,030  Jesmond Parish Church, Tyneside 
1,000  Christian Centre, Nottingham 
1,000  St. Saviour’s, Guildford 
1,000  Altrincham Baptist Church, Manchester 
1,000  Gold Hill Baptist Church, Chalfont St. Peter 

Nine of these twenty-three churches have more than two thousand attendees on a Sunday; fourteen have between one and two thousand. Among the nine, five are Pentecostal (all with substantial black congregations), three are Church of England, and one is Independent. Among the fourteen, five are Church of England, four are New Churches, three are Baptist, and two are Pentecostal.

By comparison with church sizes in the United States and other parts of the world, these would not be called “mega-churches”; however, in terms of churches in the U.K., these are, in effect, our mega-churches.

Taking just those with congregations of 350 or more (as shown in Figure 2), there are no Methodist or United Reformed churches in this size bracket.

Virtually all the 1,900 churches with more than 350 people in their congregation are either Catholic (1,350) or evangelical (460); the remaining seventy are considered broad or liberal.

There are also virtually no churches with 350 or more in rural areas, and just thirty spread across numerous commuter rural areas (and all between 350 and 400 people). There are one hundred churches of this size in city centres, 310 in inner city areas (many of which are Roman Catholic), 165 on council estates, 920 in suburban areas, and 350 in separate towns.

The Attractions of Larger Churches
The census showed a number of interesting correlations between size and other factors. For instance:

  • The larger the church, the greater the likelihood that it was a growing church, indicating the significance of strong leadership and clear vision. These churches tended also to attract those who went to church less than once a month (presumably because they could be anonymous in such surroundings, while appreciating the warm welcome such churches frequently give).
  • The larger the church, the greater the proportion of non-white people attending.
  • The larger the church, the greater the proportion of younger people in it. This was perhaps because the parents of children were attracted by weekday activities which allowed their children to interact with other Christian children. This was especially true of parents in their twenties. Fifty-seven percent of these attend churches inside Greater London and twenty-six percent attend churches with congregations in excess of two hundred people outside Greater London. This illustrates the fluidity of churchgoers and the amount of interchange there is between different churches. “Have wheels, will travel” is very much true of GenXers and their church attendance!

The proportion of people of different ages attending different sizes of churches is illustrated in Figure 3. More than half of the smallest congregations are those aged sixty-five or over, whereas they are less than a quarter in congregations in excess of four hundred people.


Figure 3: Age of churchgoers by size of church 

The Increasing Significance of Larger Churches
If we take the Church of England as an example, then there are some 160 churches with average Sunday attendance in excess of 350 people, about one percent of all Anglican churches. Yet in 2005, this one percent of churches attracted ten percent of the total Anglican attendance in the country! As Figure 4 shows, this percentage is increasing, and likely to continue doing so according to present trends.


Figure 4: Proportion of larger churches among total Church of England church attendance

These churches are all led by men; the largest Anglican church led by a woman is just under three hundred in size. Most, however, have women on their immediate senior team. Five in six are evangelical. Their average age is slightly under the average age of Church of England incumbents, but more stay beyond the normal sixty-five retirement age to leave at seventy.

In what ways are such churches different? They have a number of attractions, which are as true for larger churches of other denominations and for the Church of England:

  • Relevant preaching/teaching
  • Quality worship (which usually means different styles)
  • Friendly people (people are looking for friendship, not just friendliness)
  • A warm welcome
  • All life stages are present, so there is company whatever a person’s circumstances
  • There are a wide range of activities, including high quality children’s/youth work, often led by a children’s worker and/or youth worker
  • Large commitment to local community

Why do people continue to go to larger churches? A number of focus groups were held in 2001 among those who had joined a larger church in the previous year, and they were specifically asked this question. They replied as follows (in priority order):

  • The opportunity to grow spiritually
  • The convenience of going to a church near where they lived
  • They regularly sensed God’s presence in the worship
  • They found the teaching helpful
  • They found the worship inspiring
  • The people were friendly
  • There were appropriate activities for their family
  • It was a caring congregation

Focus group participants were also asked what activities were particularly attractive in a larger church. These included:

  • Evangelism in the local community
  • Practical discipleship was provided
  • Pastoral care was delegated to a team
  • There was an effective prayer ministry
  • The leaders thought strategically

It mustn’t, however, be assumed that larger churches are perfect. Key problems newcomers to larger churches found included:

  • Difficulty getting to know other people
  • Needy people being overlooked, or not noticed if absent
  • A contentment with being a passenger, or watching as an uninvolved spectator
  • Ineffective communication of activities
  • The professional nature of the services, sometimes more apparent than real, suggesting they could never fit in and help.

So What Does All This Suggest?
It is clear that larger churches are the exception rather than the rule, and that collectively across the country they draw significant proportions of churchgoers. The church experience of churchgoers is thus of a resourceful, thriving church with quality teaching and worship.

Leading larger churches is a major opportunity and requires special people who have good leadership skills, are able to work well with a team relationally and administratively, and have quality communication gifts. It is likely to be a stressful occupation, requiring adequate support with constant encouragement to maintain their spirituality. A delicate balance is needed between not being too remote and inaccessible to their congregation and yet not being overwhelmed and pressurised by multitudes of calls upon their time.

The programme of larger churches is often a compelling call for further helpers and volunteers reaching into their local communities in many different ways. This requires good servicing, reliable communication, and continuous training. There will be dozens of ways in which Christian commitment can be provided, with pastoral care a key issue for all involved.

The opportunities afforded for evangelism are many, the stimulus for personal Christian growth high, and the joy of building a more effective kingdom for the Lord a huge plus factor. There is no doubt that a large, active, serving church draws the needy, the curious, and the seeking. Equally precious in God’s sight, however, is the solitary, lone minister serving faithfully with commitment and dedication to a small, unresponsive, indifferent community with few resources and little support and encouragement.

Dr. Peter Brierley, a church consultant, is the Senior Lausanne Associate for Church Research. He attended Lausanne I in 1974 and has been involved with the Lausanne movement since 1984. He is former executive director of Christian Research, a UK charity which produces resource volumes like Religious Trends and the UK Christian Handbook. Brierley can be reached at [email protected].